Education Guide 2024: How micro-credential programs in B.C. are helping advance careers across the province

Some perceive micro-credentials as having limited value, but such offerings can help people enhance skills and unlock new career goals

It’s early January, and most UBC students are shaking off the sluggishness and hangovers they’ve dragged in from their winter breaks. The pace on campus (and off-campus, online) is slowly warming toward the frenzied hustle of mid-semester cramming. But Ben Reuhman avoids scholastic lulls—he never stops learning.

The Kiwi transplant is a senior manager for project delivery at Stemcell Technologies Inc., a Vancouver-based company that sells biotech products to scientists worldwide. He completed his third degree in 2016—an MBA from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand—after earning two bachelor’s degrees. Since immigrating to Canada in 2017, he’s finished two certificates through the executive education program at UBC Sauder School of Business, and is now working on another through Sauder’s continuing studies program.

Why so much schooling? For the same reason he came to Canada, Reuhman explains: to give himself opportunities to do bigger and better things. His previous employer, Seaspan ULC in North Vancouver, operates shipyards at a size and scale impossible to find at home. “You just couldn’t get opportunities like that in New Zealand,” he says.

He also adds to his education as a way to keep opening new doors. Each degree or certificate helps him take on more senior, more exciting new roles. His Sauder certificate in strategy excellence, for example, helps him understand how to coordinate different teams.

Reuhman isn’t chasing any particular title—he just wants to keep growing and challenging himself. “For me, it’s about doing interesting and meaningful work, and helping to solve problems,” he elaborates. “As you move up the ladder, you’re solving bigger and bigger problems that impact more and more people.”

Reuhman may be an unusually keen lifelong learner, but his story illustrates how B.C. post-secondary schools are providing an ever-broadening range of opportunities for professionals who want to keep adding skills throughout their careers.

UBC Sauder

The idea of mid-career, back-to-school retooling isn’t new. Homer Simpson had to pass nuclear physics at Springfield University in the ’90s to re-qualify for his safety inspector job. Reuhman, however, won’t have to share a dorm with 19-year-olds when he goes to Sauder to accelerate his career.

B.C. institutions are designing executive training, continuing education and micro-credential programs with working professionals like Reuhman and those in other fields in mind. These aren’t traditional four-year degrees or two-year diplomas, but condensed training boosters.

The programs target specific topics and career waypoints, so senior executives learning to drive board value, for example, can work through problems among like-minded classmates. The schools build their programs to be concise and flexible, so participants don’t have to pause their careers. Learners can choose among programs that run for a few sessions, in the case of micro-credentials, or for a few months, in the case of certificates. They can train in-person, online or with a hybrid mix; schedules can be completed via self-paced studies or synchronously timed sessions with classmates.

Each B.C. institution tends to inhabit its own niche and lean on its own strengths. Sauder’s extensive roster of expert faculty allows its executive education program to offer more than 90 courses, covering issues like communication, marketing, business development and much more. UNBC focuses its efforts on delivering a singular executive leadership core certificate. Steve Jobs’s advice seems apt for smaller schools: Do not try to do everything. Do one thing well.

Training Day

Students walking into BCIT campus

BCIT delivers a wide range of hands-on, technical training. If you’re a banking specialist who needs to investigate shady transactions, for example, the school offers a fraud and financial crime micro-credential to show you how.

IT analyst Christopher Frigon has been working for various Vancouver organizations over the last two decades. He completed BCIT’s cybersecurity for IT professionals micro-credential last December. He didn’t need it for his job—his employer is a global enterprise with specialized security teams to tackle those tasks. He just wanted to familiarize himself with some tools for personal development, and to see if he’d like to add to or change his role in the future.

This micro-credential delivers substance but isn’t designed to make anyone an expert. Becoming fully qualified as a cybersecurity practitioner demands an alphabet of costly credentials. Frigon is thankful he got a taste of the field before he dove in completely.

“If you start to pursue this area and then decide, ‘Oh geez, that’s really not an area I want to get involved in’—it’s quite a financial impact,” Frigon explains. He gained useful skills but also realized he doesn’t want to make security his central focus: “This was a real nice, bite-sized type of opportunity to get exposure to it and see if that’s where I’d like to grow my career.”

Some micro-credentials are stackable—they’re stepping stones that can be used for credit toward further studies like a diploma or degree. BCIT offers others meant to stand on their own for professional development purposes, such as its fraud and financial crime investigation micro-credential, or forensic nurse examiner micro-credential.

Students in those programs usually have established careers and are taking on roles that require them to add specific skills. A police gang investigator might need to learn how to track money laundering, for example.

The forensic nurse examiner micro-credential teaches skills that are sadly in demand in B.C. “A lot of what we do is help registered nurses and nurse practitioners be able to do a complete sexual assault examination,” explains Jennifer Talman, BCIT’s associate dean, school of computing and academic studies.

Unfortunately, some people are unable to get the help they need at the emergency room because hospitals are short on medical workers who have added that skillset. “There is a push in B.C. to get more forensic nurses trained, to be able to provide those forensic services to those who wish to have them,” Talman says. “We do a lot of that training at BCIT.”

Thankfully, students don’t need to undergo a time-consuming application process to enrol in these micro-credentials or the individual courses that comprise them—like they would if they were starting a degree or diploma. “People who want to take courses can just go to the website, sign up for a student number and register for the course,” Talman points out.

Tailor Made

University Canada West campus
University Canada West

Most B.C. institutions have streamlined their enrolment procedures for micro-credentials and other non-credit programs in a similar fashion, making this type of in-demand post-secondary course more accessible for prospective students.

And educators can be more agile when designing them, because they don’t need to pass the same provincial regulatory hurdles as they would when creating new degrees. University Canada West offers micro-credentials in quickly moving business and technology fields like digital marketing and e-commerce. Its vice-president of academics, Maureen Mancuso, says her school is always looking to identify new areas and specializations where its faculty members’ expertise is needed: “We assess the market to identify in-demand skills and competencies, analyzing industry trends and employer feedback to find gaps the university can address.”

Of course, students don’t leave non-credit classrooms with the same recognition a degree or diploma confers. But these programs are meant to prioritize learning over earning credentials. “People do these for themselves, to create an impact for themselves and their organization,” explains Priya Mistry, Sauder’s director of open and executive programs. “There isn’t an exam at the end of it. You’re doing it to essentially plug that gap in your knowledge that you currently have.”

Reuhman, the triple graduate, concurs: “I didn’t want exams. I’ve done seven or eight years of exams. I’d rather learn the content.” And he wanted content that was more advanced and finely focused than what they were teaching him in grad school.

His master’s degree touched on some of the same topics as his Sauder strategy excellence certificate—leading high-performance teams, for example. “I did a course in HR as part of my MBA. It might have been in one lecture or something,” Reuhman says. He contrasts that fading recollection with the two-day immersion he spent with Sauder: “You’re focused on this one narrow thing and you’re going really deep.”

Getting Specific

UNBC great hall with students
UNBC combines virtual programs with on-campus learning at its five locations

Diving deep into specialized topics is exactly what professionals at the top of their game need to do in order to get another step higher. But no institution has enough experts or programs to be a one-stop shop for every career builder and lifelong learner. Even for broader topics like leadership skills, different educators present different schools of thought. And for working professionals, how the courses are delivered—the where, when and who’s minding their kids—can be the factors that lead them to choose one program over another.

Those logistical questions played on Erin Cherban’s mind when she was weighing where to go to school. She’s the chief clinical research officer for the Centre for Advancing Health Outcomes/CIHR Canadian HIV Trial Network. She rose to leadership roles through her career in clinical trials research.

Cherban considered an MBA, because she had no business education. “I thought it was time to have some formal training in leading an organization,” she recalls. “Mostly just to make sure that I was doing a good job.”

Exterior of the SFU downtown Campus
Photo by Daniel Abadia

However, her two school-aged children were more important to her than a degree. “I didn’t want to spend years every evening working on an MBA where I would miss out on time with them,” Cherban explains.

She eventually decided on the executive  leadership certificate through SFU’s continuing education department after researching several contenders.

The program appealed to her because of its flexibility and reasonable duration, but, ultimately, the learning experience is what won her over. “[The certificate] ended up being far better than I was expecting,” she explains. “You go into these things and you’re not quite sure what you’re getting yourself into.”

Online courses offer the most flexibility, especially if they’re asynchronous. You just log in and learn as easily as you might watch Netflix. But ultimate flexibility comes with trade-offs—participants lose the added benefit of peer-to-peer interaction. Adrienne Serrao instructs UNBC’s executive core leadership certificate, where students get together at scheduled times for workshops on Zoom. She asserts that online sessions provide ample opportunity for intimacy and sharing when done right. “I’ve been doing virtual for years now,” she says. “It can be just as engaging—lots of sharing of experiences. And for people that are not as comfortable, they can use the chat function. We use annotate. We use breakouts. There are lots of different tools.”

And because those remote engagements are scheduled on Pacific Time, participants from across B.C. can learn from each others’ different experiences. “There’s a variety of industries and sectors,” Serrao points out.

Helping Hand

UVic’s Gustavson School of Business campus
UVic’s Gustavson School of Business service leadership program helps companies and students alike

Many employers help cover the costs when their team members choose to take professional development courses. When organizations need to have everyone reading from the same page, they can take advantage of custom corporate or executive education programs offered across the province.

Craig Ivany is the chief provincial diagnostics officer for Provincial Laboratory Medicine Services. His agency integrates and coordinates public and private medical labs across B.C. Ivany wanted his team to boost their skills so they’d be great collaborators and partners with the independent members of the province’s lab ecosystem, while also meeting the Ministry of Health’s objectives. PLMS doesn’t direct those organizations—they’re autonomous.

“We knew that we had to think very carefully about exactly what our role was and how we needed to show up in every interaction that we have with the lab systems,” Ivany recalls.

PLMS weighed numerous custom education options and landed on the service leadership program founded by Mark Colgate at the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria.

Why would a provincial health bureaucracy seek guidance from business experts specializing in something called service leadership? It might not appear at first glance to be a natural fit, Ivany acknowledges: “Many people in lab medicine are very skeptical of folks outside of their realm.”

But Colgate and his colleagues work with government agencies, as well as with businesses and NGOs—basically, anybody who deals with clients or customers. “We help raise their game in terms of the quality of service that that they deliver,” explains Colgate.

He says organizations find alignment when they focus on client experience, and become more effective with their resources: “You’re more efficient at delivering service, you’re more reliable, you make fewer mistakes, you’re more accurate, you get less rework and fewer complaints.”

PLMS has just started working with the service leadership program, but Ivany is ready to incorporate the ideas Colgate presented as some of his organization’s defining traits. “Boy, oh boy, he really connected with our team—really understood what our needs were,” Ivany says. “He delivered a very compelling case for us to think about our world differently; to look at our world through a different lens.”

Ivany says his people quickly grasped the value of becoming a customer-centric organization, and of building a culture of accountability. “We know it’s the right path for us, given our mandate,” he explains.

For Colgate, service leadership is more than just an idea that sets his program apart from others. He literally wrote the book on it—The Science of Service: The Proven Formula to Drive Customer Loyalty and Stand Out from the Crowd. So Gustavson executive education participants like PLMS are getting the fruits of Colgate’s academic research, and his life’s passion.

Colgate suggests organizations should look for providers with specialized academic expertise to teach them the ideas they’re interested in. “I think that’s where executive programs at universities are the best, right? Where they have professors who have a particular knowledge to share with clients,” he says.

That’s good advice for anyone who’s curious and wants to learn: find instructors who love what they study and who want to tell the world about it.